Advocates of bilingual education line up behind two theories — immersion in English and learning in two languages

Claudia Encinas and Viviana Tobon are the products of neighboring high schools. But in the world of bilingual education, they have attended two opposite schools of thought.

What they share are the accolades of school administrators who point to them as proof that students born in other countries can excel in a second tongue.

Encinas, a Mexican immigrant, was one of seven West Mesa High School graduates last month to earn bilingual honors for being proficient in both English and Spanish. The distinction came after being taught in both languages since the age of nine.

Tobon, meanwhile, has stunned her teachers at Cibola High School by becoming conversant in English only months after arriving from Colombia in January.

Along the way, she received no help in her native Spanish. Now she earns good grades in classes where few accommodations for her are made.

Behind the two success stories lies a fierce national debate over how they and others like them should be taught English.

In Albuquerque, 14 students have sued Albuquerque Public Schools, in effect demanding that the school district abandon its bilingual education programs.

In California, meanwhile, residents voted earlier this month to scrap bilingual programs, insisting that virtually all students be instructed only in English.

As Congress watches, both the lawsuit and the ballot initiative could ultimately affect more than 28,000 APS students and millions more across the country.

Contrasting approaches

At its core, the debate over bilingual education is simple, illustrated by the contrasting approaches used to educate Encinas and Tobon.

Tobon, whose instructors at Cibola have taught her without speaking Spanish, is a testament to cold-turkey, English-only instruction.

“I prefer English,” she said. “I’m here to learn it, and I don’t want to be taught in Spanish.”

Encinas’ success, meanwhile, suggests that the whistles and bells of bilingual education — where students are taught for years in their home language — can produce graduates who are literate in two languages.

Both students have thrived under techniques that have failed others.

Critics of bilingual education say too many students have failed to learn English while being offered instruction in their home language.

Linda Chavez, whose national organization, the Center for Equal Opportunity, is paying for the lawsuit against APS, said the bilingual approach has failed in its 30-year goal of teaching students to become literate in English as well as their native language.

“If, in fact, bilingual education had been turning out biliterate and bilingual students, we wouldn’t be here suing,” she said.

Chavez points to a report by Boston University professor Christine Rossell. Using 72 different bilingual education studies, Rossell concluded that students in English-only programs are more likely to have higher test scores than those who are taught in other languages.

Chavez says that to learn English effectively, students should be immersed in it.

The lawsuit against APS demands that the district cease all native-language instruction for students who do not speak English. It also seeks greater access to English-only instruction.

That frightens supporters of bilingual education, who argue that English-only instruction robs children of their native language and places them at risk of failing in classes like math, history and science because they cannot understand instructors.

“How can we expect to keep kids from dropping out if they cannot understand what is being taught in class?” asks Virginia Duran-Ginn, APS’ director of bilingual instruction.

Duran-Ginn said a study by George Mason University professor Virginia Collier supports the effectiveness of bilingual education.

Collier’s research suggests that while students in bilingual programs may initially take longer to learn English, after seven years they outperform students in English-only classrooms.

Duran-Ginn said bilingual programs also help preserve a valuable cultural resource.

“If we don’t continue to teach children in their native language, we are going to make them monolingual,” she said. “And now more than ever, being multilingual is needed to compete.”

Businessman Russ Merrill, of Albuquerque’s Eddelman Industries Inc., agrees.

He said the company, which manufactures corrugated boxes for use in Mexico, has difficulty finding employees qualified for international trade.

“It’s not a matter of just being able to speak two languages,” he said. “It’s having the educational background as well. Bilingual education gives (students) the chance to develop those skills in their home language.”

But APS has no documentation to support Duran-Ginn’s claim that bilingual programs serve students best. The district has only just begun comparing test scores for students with limited English skills to determine whether bilingual or English-only methods are superior.

And the district has not compiled information indicating how long it takes those students, on average, to become proficient in English.

In the meantime, the services offered to the district’s limited-English students vary vastly from school to school.

At some, students spend as much as half their day in classes where only their native language is spoken.

In all, nearly 25,000 APS students, or 30 percent of the district’s population, spend at least a portion of their days learning in a language other than English. With a few exceptions, that language is Spanish.

But at other APS schools, students leave their native language at home, spending the entire school day immersed in English.

Financial aspects

Nothing weighs as heavily on how Albuquerque’s limited-English students are taught English than where they live.

Consider West Mesa and Cibola — two schools separated by less than 10 miles but offering vastly different services.

At Cibola, which is one of 61 English-only APS schools, about two dozen students whose tests indicate severe English deficiency are pulled from class for language assistance. That help is offered solely in English.

At West Mesa, more than 850 students participate in a bilingual program that allows dozens of students to spend hours a day in their native Spanish.

Students at West Mesa can take world history, U.S. history, health, dance and several math classes in Spanish.

Few of the students would be singled out for intensive English language instruction if they attended an English-only school like Cibola.

Of West Mesa’s 850 bilingual students, only 10 percent have tested as being non-English or partial English-speaking and would qualify for intensive language tutoring at an English-only school.

The hundreds of other West Mesa students participate in bilingual classes simply because they choose to or because administrators feel the students need to polish their English.

Most everything West Mesa does with language instruction, then, is optional.

No school in New Mexico is required to teach students in their native languages while they learn English, unless it accepts state money to teach such classes.

And no school has to offer classes like science and history in any language other than English.

But since 1973, the state of New Mexico has provided millions of dollars to allow schools like West Mesa to provide a litany of non-English courses.

Last year alone, $12 million was spent helping 58 APS schools set up or maintain bilingual programs.

Typically, schools that seek the money are in areas where minority populations are high and language needs are great.

As a result, all but a fraction of the district’s students with limited-English skills attend bilingual schools, where as many as half their classes are taught in a language other than English.

A common principle

Because the state allows schools to make most decisions on how bilingual money is spent, programs vary dramatically.

However, all bilingual schools operate under a common principle.

Two languages, bilingual supporters say, are better than one.

Better, not only in teaching students English, but also in the long run as those students enter the work force.

“I think that it broadens any student’s potential,” Duran-Ginn said. “When it comes to language, more is better.”

Under the state’s bilingual education program, schools offer limited-English students more help than the federal government requires.

Federal law requires students who speak little or no English to get at least 45 minutes of assistance per day. It does not require that the home language be used.

Typically, schools satisfy federal law by offering an English-as-a-Second-Language course.

In such ESL classes, students are instructed by a teacher who speaks only English and relies on nonverbal techniques and simplified English to teach the language.

In English-only schools like Cibola, those ESL classes serve as the centerpiece of English instruction.

But at New Mexico’s bilingual schools, students also receive at least one class a day in their home language.

Within APS, more than 21,000 students receive such help at 58 different bilingual schools.

Using students’ home languages as a tool to teach English is called Transitional Bilingual Education. Researchers say the method — if used properly
— takes anywhere from three to seven years to bring a student up to speed with his peers.

But in Albuquerque, Duran-Ginn said, most if not all bilingual schools are trying to do more than merely use Spanish to teach students English.

She said students are best kept in bilingual programs for their entire school career.

“We hope they stay in bilingual classes all the way from K-12,” she said.

Under what’s called Maintenance Bilingual Education, administrators also try to preserve and enhance the Spanish that students already speak.

That’s why West Mesa leaves its Spanish-language history courses open not only to non-English speakers, but to students who want to retain or improve their Spanish.

Pilar de Garcia, who heads West Mesa’s bilingual programs, says the approach helps keep many students in school.

“A lot of the students in these classes are at risk of dropping out,” she said. “Telling them they can graduate with honors because they speak two languages is a source of pride for them.”

That’s what attracted Encinas to the Spanish language classes.

“It’s just better being bilingual,” she said. “It opens up new possibilities.”

Other APS schools take an even more aggressive approach.

At Dolores Gonzales Elementary School more than 150 students of all language backgrounds spend half their day in Spanish and the other half in English.

Many of those students, such as third-grader Amnesty Rogers, entered the program speaking little or no Spanish at all.

Now she tests above her grade level in both English and Spanish.

She’s also learning next to students like Martha Lara, who entered the program speaking only Spanish and also tests high in both languages.

“I like this program because I can talk to everyone now,” Lara said.

English matters most

Critics like Chavez say they don’t doubt that some bilingual programs can reach their goal of teaching students to be literate in two languages.

But Chavez said such success stories are rare.

More often, she said, bilingual programs are poorly managed and fail to place the greatest emphasis on teaching English.

But she said learning English matters most, even if it comes at the cost of a student losing some of his native language.

“If students miss the opportunity to learn English, it will dramatically impact their lives,” she said.

Chavez said that with English being the predominant language of the nation, students can’t function without it.

The way to teach English most effectively and quickly, she said, is to spend all class time in English.

Under the approach favored by Chavez, students with limited or no English would be taught much like students at Cibola and other APS schools where no bilingual services are offered.

There, students receive only the 45-minute-a-day ESL course. Beyond that, teachers of other courses attempt to simplify their instruction for those whose English is limited.

“We are not asking that kids be thrown in a classroom and be asked to sink or swim,” Chavez said.

And in an age when spending has limits, she said schools must decide whether they want to teach one language well, or continue struggling to teach two.

“The question is what responsibility is first and foremost for the school district,” she said.

What bilingual means

LIMITED ENGLISH PROFICIENT: Students whose tests indicate limited English skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing. At APS, only students whose primary or home language is other than English are tested.

BILINGUAL EDUCATION: An instruction method in which both English and a student’s home language are taught. Typically, the objective is to teach Limited English Proficient students English, but bilingual programs are also used to maintain and even enhance a home language.

ENGLISH-ONLY MODEL: An instruction method in which only English is used to teach Limited English Proficient students English.

ENGLISH-AS-A-SECOND-LANGUAGE: Courses in which students who speak little or no English learn how to speak, write and read the language. Teachers typically speak only English and rely on nonverbal skills and using the language within context.

Within APS, English-as-a-Second Language courses are offered at least 45 minutes a day to those with the most severe language needs. ESL classes, then, are a component of both the English-only and the bilingual models.

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